The ache of separation can be unbearable. Nothing is more unbearable to endure than the separation caused by a child’s mother retreating to the basement (alone) to change loads of laundry.
“Mommy?!” this panicked cry of my middle child has followed me down the stairs more times than I can count. It has followed me to the bathroom. It has followed me out the door, as I let the dog outside. It has followed me back to my bedroom, to grab my purse.
Lacking in patience and insight at times, I often miss the call to contemplation that that anxious cry offers. For, what if I possessed just a fraction of my child’s desire to be in my presence, in my desire to be in Christ’s presence?
On days lacking in dryness, I will sometimes feel that piercing ache for Jesus. I am convinced that that is sheer grace, but I am grateful for those moments, nonetheless. It is in those moments that I receive the slightest hint of what that ache for the Apostles must have felt like, at Christ’s ascension. The one who they had walked beside for three years, whose presence had left their hearts burning within them, was leaving them to return to his Father in heaven. How could they bear such separation?
And so, Jesus made his promise. “I will be with you always, to the end of time.”
Attachment Theory and the Gospels
If we comb back through the Scriptures, there are a surprising number of times when God’s commands to his people ended up making great sense in light of modern scientific or medical understanding. His exhortation to the Jewish people to wash before meals, for example, is now thought to be good common sense.
At the time of Jesus, psychology was not something researched or understood, yet. But we can see Jesus (whose divine knowledge meant he didn’t need research to understand humanity) already making use of solid, healthy attachment theory in his treatment of the disciples.
When our oldest was a toddler, her grandparents gave her a DVD of baby songs, and one of our favorites was, “My Mommy Comes Back.” The chorus went, “My Mommy comes back, she always comes back…she never would forget me!” That summarizes the work of healthy attachment forming in young children – to be able to trust and experience that their parents love them and will always return. A child with a healthy attachment does not panic when their parents go out of sight but feels free to explore the world and rest in the knowledge of their sure return.
Having only recently experienced the crucifixion, the disciples surely were still reeling. And, having not yet received the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were still lacking in fortitude. Jesus knew that. He knew that they needed not only reassurance of His return (which the angels offered the disciples as they craned their necks to see the ascending Christ) but also His promise of never truly leaving them.
That promise is fulfilled, in a real, concrete way, in the Eucharist.
Solace in the Eucharistic Presence
It may be comforting to know that someone cares about you, loves you, and supports you when you are apart. But there is no consolation quite like the physical presence of loved ones – parents, siblings, friends, spouses, children. There is a certain rest that can only occur when you are in the presence of those you love.
We are created for union with Christ – not just friendship, or casual relationship. We are created for union. When my husband is absent, I ache for him in a different way than I would for a friend. I can go weeks without seeing even my best friends, and although I certainly miss them, I don’t ache in the same way. That kind of ache is only a hint at the ache that we are meant to have for Christ. In her work The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila calls this aching a sweet pain (paraphrasing a bit). The idea being that although the ache of longing for Christ is painful, it is a pain that is sweeter than the greatest happiness the world can offer.
And, while we are on this worldly sojourn, the only real cure for this ache is found in the Eucharist. Every time we receive Him in the Eucharist, we are united to Christ in a real, deep way. Although we are not (typically) caught up in ecstasy at reception of Him, the union that the Eucharist effects is no less real or poignant.
Healthy attachment does necessitate not being perpetually apart. As humans, we need to spend time in the presence of those we love and those who love us. And, as spouses benefit from the union of the marital embrace, so too do we benefit from being embraced by our Bridegroom – made one with Him in the Eucharist.
As we listen to the story of the Ascension read at Mass, followed not too distantly by our reception in the Eucharist, may we rest in the consolation that our God is one who loves us, longs for us, and keeps His promises. He will remain with us always – even to the end of time.